Why do we go to the movies? Usually I would say something along the lines “to get entertained, comforted, challenged or stimulated”. I don’t normally go to theatres to make a political standpoint. But a few days ago I did exactly that thing.
The film I watched wasn’t even called a film, but an “effort” by the ones who made it, the Iranian director Jafar Panahi and his friend Mojtaba Mirtahmasb. It’s even in the title: “This is Not a Film”.
As it started my expectations were minimal. I feared 75 long and boring minutes to get through this documentary showing how Jafar Panahi leads his life while in house arrest, waiting to start serving his 6 year long prison sentence and 20 year ban to make films.
My watching was nothing but an act of solidarity. When I learned about Panahi’s situation a little while ago and heard about the origins of this film, how it had been made in secrecy since it was illegal and how it had been smuggled out of Iran at a flash memory hidden in a cake, something clicked inside me. The whole thing made me upset. I wanted to do something for him and the other muted film makers, taking a stance against a government that puts people into jail for making films they don’t approve of. The least thing I could do was to buy a ticket, watch the movies and make sure to bump up the numbers of viewers with one person. I figured a multi-headed international audience might make some sort of impression on the regime in Iran.
I couldn’t be certain of course. I thought back on the letters I used to send to the dictator of Syria in the 80s when I was a member of Amnesty International. Did he ever get any of them? He must have had thousands of them. Did they matter? Did they make a difference? I wanted to believe they did. Because the thought of a world where you can’t make a difference is pretty much unbearable.
Passion for film
So I went in to demonstrate my support for Panahi and contempt for the current regime in Iran. But in the end this night turned out to be a lot more to me. Because the film title is quite misleading. This is Not a Film is definitely a film – and a surprisingly good one.
You could say that it looks a bit randomly put together. We see Jahar Panahi talking in the phone to his wife and his lawyer, patting his lizard pet (I had no idea you could keep such a big lizard in your home), talking a little about films he’s made in the past. A neighbor rings on his door, wanting him to take care of a dog for a while. The dog starts barking at the lizard and he returns it quickly. A guy comes to fetch the garbage and Panahi follows him to the elevator, talking to him. He tries to recreate the movie he was denied to make by the authorities, reading from the script until he realizes the futility of it and gives up.
He never says anything openly critical towards the authorities. But we get it. We totally get it, if nothing else in the end credits, where everyone he wants to thank is replaced by a line of dots since it would put them in danger to even mentioning in the film.
In one scene the friend who is holding the film camera is revealed. Jafar Panahi films him through the camera in his cell phone and Motaba Mirtahamasb films Jafar Panahi with his video camera. Two friends filming each other. They smile at each other, a melancholical smile that reminds me of Frodo and Sam in Mordor. They know that this film may get consequences and yet they choose to do it. They’re in this together. And it made me so moved that I got tears in my eyes, wondering where they get all this strength and courage.
But don’t get me wrong. I want to point out that it’s far from a demonstration of self pity and definitely not only a cry for help and support from the international community. The thing is – believe it or not – that it’s actually funny. Not funny in the laughing-out-loud-way, but there are glimpses of humor in it that made me giggle and which made the watching far more fun and less depressing than you might think considering the story behind.
But it’s also a film about film making. Panahi’s passion for it is present in every moment and it’s not hard to understand why he’s taking the risks he does making this “effort”. True artists just can’t shut up.
Not the only one
As I prepared writing this post found some more saddening news about the current conditions for the Iranian film makers.
- The Iranian actress Merila Zarei from A Separation was for no known reason prevented from travelling to Sweden to participate in an Iranian film festival arranged in Sweden in September.
- Earlier this autumn the Iranian Acress Marzieh Vafamehr was sentenced to being whipped 90 times and spend one year in prison. Her crime: to not wear a veil and to have a shaved hair in a few scenes in the film My Teheran for Sale.
- According to an article in The Guardian in September, Mojtaba Mirtahmasb was arrested and charged with espionage for working for the BBC shortly before This is Not a Film went up at the Toronto film festival. His fate is unclear as is that of three other film makers arrested with the same charges.
This is Not a Film will never reach the huge audiences in the multiplex universe. But if you get the chance to watch it I urge you to grab it. If not to make a political statement at least to get some food for thought and a totally enjoyable movie watching experience.
This is Not a Film (In Film Nist, Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, IR, 2011) My rating: 4,5/5